Saturday, September 7, 2013

At Least Three Pestilences

“You will not fear the terror of the night, nor the arrow that flies by day, nor the pestilence that stalks in the darkness, nor the plague that destroys at midday.” (Psalm 91: 5-6)

This is the biblical passage underlying E.F. Benson’s classic horror story, Negotium Perambulans (1922), which was discussed in a post last June.  In that story, weird and gruesome justice is dealt to the principle sinners of Polearn, an isolated fishing village in Cornwall.  The menace comes from the sea, a gigantic Calvinist mollusk that preys upon those who commit sacrilege in an ancient church. 

There is an echo of this in H.P. Lovecraft’s The Haunter of the Dark (1936).  In both stories, the relentless horror emerges from within or around a church that has been desecrated, and lights must be kept on at night in a pathetic attempt to forestall the inevitable.  But there are significant differences between the two stories reflective of their authors’ differing perspectives.

Different again is Lord Dunsany’s “The Vengeance of Men”, found in his collection Time and the Gods (1913).  This is a fable that describes a particular view of humanity’s relationship with the gods, and of the latter’s inexplicable wrath and cruelty.  In some respects it is a retelling of the ancient Israelites’ desert wanderings and eventual settlement of the promised land of Canaan, described in the Old Testament books of Exodus and Joshua. 

But Dunsany’s story contains a much darker and more modern understanding of this experience.  Dunsany’s people of Harza are not nearly as successful as the ancient Israelites, and yet it is clear in Dunsany’s tale that they will prevail through their indomitable will and spirit.  In “The Vengeance of Men”, the gods of Pegāna single out the people of Harza for abuse and torment after they have successfully cultivated what was an arid waste.  They are the “anti-Chosen People” and are soon visited by a menace appropriately called “the Pestilence”. 

Cheered on by the gods, the Pestilence kills and disperses the people of Harza and hunts them into the wilderness.  It is clear that Dunsany intends this Pestilence to be more than a physical menace, for he “fed on the light that shines in the eyes of men, which never appeased his hunger…”  When he first arrives, the Pestilence relies on stealth to capture his victims, but as his success grows, he makes no effort to conceal himself and later even appears during the day.  (Initially he had operated only at night, as his colleagues do in Negotium Perambulans and The Haunter of the Dark.) 

In desperation, the people return to their doomed city.  Before he succumbs to the Pestilence, their prophet reassures them by predicting the eventual end of the gods—this theme is actually introduced at the very beginning of Time and the Gods.

The three stories by Benson, Lovecraft and Dunsany show interesting similarities and differences in their perspective on the “Pestilence”.  There is a progression in their view that moves from the individual to the collective fate of humanity as it struggles with the cruel whims of its deities.  These comparisons are summarized in the table below.

Comparisons of Three Pestilences

Benson’s “Negotium”
Lovecraft’s “Haunter”
Dunsany’s  “Pestilence”
The sea
Shining trapezohedron
Pegāna’s outer gate
Molluscan, hairless, slug-like, caterpillar-like, phosphorescent, slimy
Indeterminate, dark, black wings, “three lobed burning eye”
Vaguely mammalian, green eyes, paws, dripping teeth
Dislikes light
Is banished by light
None, while the gods live
Sinners, especially those that commit sacrilege or blasphemy
Writers, artists, members of Starry Wisdom cult
Citizens of Harza, but also dogs, cats, and bats
Cause of Death
“…the critter had drained all the blood from him…”
“…nervous tension induced by electrical discharge…” (?)
Loss of soul and life-force by looking the Pestilence in the eye
Avoid sin, maintain a “firm faith and a pure heart”
Avoid cults and shining trapezohedrons
Avoid the city of Harza
Favorite Line
“God has His instruments of vengeance on those who bring wickedness into places that have been holy.”
“He felt entangled with something—something which was not in the stone, but which had looked through it at him…”
“Earth is no place for laughter.”

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